Trailhead Break-in Epidemic–what can we do about it?

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14 April 2019
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Here we go again. If it feels like I just wrote about this topic, it is because I did a mere year and a half ago. A rash of car break-ins, smash-and-grabs, car clouting (call it what you may, but they all mean the same thing- a big bummer to the end of a great hike) has once again plagued the Olympic Peninsula. And this time around it appears to be posed as a far worse problem than in past years. For one thing, it is starting early, appears to be more widespread, and the works of these thieving scoundrels appears to be even more egregious. One hiking party returned to their vehicle after an overnighter on the Duckabush Trail to find not only their windows smashed out and their car rummaged through—but also all four of their wheels were stolen!

Hiking forums have once again lit up with responses ranging the full gambit of emotions. And on cue some of the same tired responses have flooded these forums. But let’s be serious here on what we are dealing with and how we can effectively confront this issue and minimize our chances of being another crime statistic. Trailhead break-ins are nothing new. When I started hiking in the 1980s there were certain areas coast-to-coast that were often hit. What appears to be happening now is that the hits are becoming more frequent and wider spread and they are rampant on the Olympic Peninsula, Mountain Loop Highway, Columbia River Gorge, and Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

We are currently dealing with an epidemic of drug addiction and homelessness. And I am willing to bet that almost all of these trailhead crimes can be attributed to these societal ills. Until we as a society decide to address these underlying problems, trailhead break-ins are not going away. I do not wish to engage in a blame game or partisan political ranting, but basically we need to get people off of the streets, cleaned up and sober, and help them on their way to becoming productive citizens. Does this mean I give criminal activity a pass? Absolutely not. No hard working honest person deserves to be a victim of crime—ever. Law enforcement has to start taking property crimes seriously and keeping our citizens safe. Having your car vandalized on a backcountry road far from civilization is not just an inconvenience—it can be life threatening.

At the very least, land agencies need to work with law enforcement about setting up stings and catching some of these perpetrators. In many cases you will find that just a couple of people are responsible for hundreds of crimes. Catch them, arrest them, and then get them cleaned up and ready to start paying back to society. Stings have been implemented in the past and they have been successful resulting in large drops in trailhead crime.

Call and write your land managers and insist that this be done. And in the meantime, do everything you can to not become a victim. Some effective measures include the following:

  1. Drive a junker to the trailhead if you have one.
  2. Absolutely leave nothing of value—including loose change in the dash in the car.
  3. Never ever place valuables in your trunk at the trailhead. Criminals often hang out at trailheads and watch. Secure all of your gear and valuables in the trunk before you get to the trailhead.
  4. Park your car at a secure spot near a trailhead and walk or bike to it.
  5. Have someone drop you off at a trailhead if possible.
  6. Take public transportation to a trailhead if it’s an option.
  7. Take your registration with you. The last thing you want is a criminal showing up at your house.
  8. If you see someone who appears to be sketchy at the trailhead—take notes—photograph the license plate of the perp’s vehicle (but do not confront as they may be dangerous)- report to the authorities and go somewhere else.
  9. Monitor high crime trailheads and consider going elsewhere. The Duckabush Trailhead is one of the absolute worse places to leave a car overnight. Consider starting your overnighters from an alternative trailhead or having someone drop you off.
  10. Make your car unattractive to thieves by “trashing the interior” with fast food wrappers, dirty diapers, dog biscuits—you get the idea.

I have implemented all of the above at various times and either they were effective or I was just lucky.

I understand that folks are angry. I am too. But anger won’t solve this problem nor will it keep you from having your vehicle ransacked. The whole situation is maddening and frustrating. After all, the last thing we want to think about when we are trying to escape the craziness of the “civilized world” is worrying about the uncivilized aspects of it. One of the worse ways to end a wonderful trip into the backcountry is to come back to your vehicle and find it has been vandalized and items you worked hard for have been stolen. It’s time we start to seriously address this issue. And in the meantime, let’s watch out for each other and continue to express kindness and goodwill to each other on and off the trail. Isn’t that why we hike in the first place—to renew and recharge our wellbeing.

 

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